Meet the master craftswomen bucking disability and manufacturing employment trends this International Women’s Day

Heather McDonald (Highland BlindCraft executive manager)

WHILE manufacturing used to be big business in the UK, it is no longer the economic powerhouse it once was. According to the ONS, the industry still employs over 2.5 million people across the country – however fewer than half of all manufacturing employees are female.

On International Women’s Day (March 8), Highland BlindCraft – which employs people with visual impairments and other disabilities to handmake high quality mattresses and divans – is seeking to redress this imbalance.

Executive manager Heather McDonald said: “There is a huge inequality in the manufacturing industry, with far more men occupying positions than women. It’s an issue the world over – a Forbes article from 2019 showed only 29% of the US manufacturing workforce was female.”

“At Highland BlindCraft, we also have to consider the difficulties disabled people have finding employment. Disabled workers are almost twice as likely to move out of work than non-disabled people – and yet at Highland BlindCraft, we have women on our team who have been with us for over 35 years.”

“More needs to be done to encourage women to consider skilled careers in manufacturing industries – and to provide the support and resources disabled people require to thrive in the workplace.” 

According to the UK Government, in Q2 2021 the disability employment rate was 52.7% – compared to 81.0% for non-disabled people. That’s a disability employment gap of 28.4 percentage points.

Christabel, who is sensory impaired, has worked at Highland BlindCraft for 37 years. Working in the sewing room, she carefully measures, cuts and sews all materials used for the firm’s handmade mattresses.

She said: “It can be harder for disabled and sensory impaired people to find jobs. However Highland BlindCraft helps in these areas by providing training to those who require it. I moved to Inverness to work here from the Western Isles, as Highland BlindCraft’s reputation for providing support is second to none.”

Kirsty, who joined the firm’s marketing team in 2020, lives with a chronic illness. She joined Highland BlindCraft because of its community values as well as the way it supports those with disabilities.

She added: “When you’re looking for work, some employers only see a disability – and not the person in front of them. They’re missing out on so much potential.”

“More needs to be done to educate employers on the needs of disabled employees. Some disabilities are invisible, but because of this many employees are treated like they don’t have additional needs – and this can lead to huge challenges.”

“Here at Highland BlindCraft, we are supported to achieve and exceed our ambitions by a team that is almost like a second family.”

Diane, who has learning difficulties, joined Highland Blind raft 29 years ago. She is a specialist in sewing and tufting mattresses – a process which holds the layers together and keeps it from sagging over time.

She said: “Working at Highland BlindCraft has helped me a lot. I’ve made friends with my co-workers – and I even met my husband here! This job has really helped me improve my confidence.”

Another employee, who wished to remain anonymous, has worked at Highland BlindCraft for 35 years. She joined the company after finishing school as she discovered finding work while visually impaired was harder than for those who are able sighted. Now production supervisor, she oversees production and quality control in the firm’s Inverness factory.

She said: “Working at Highland BlindCraft has really helped me improve my confidence and independence. No two days are the same, and it’s a really rewarding place to work as there’s a real sense of community and supportiveness. Every disability is different and has different needs – but there is always a need to treat everyone equally.”

Founded in 1881, Highland BlindCraft is a manufacturer and retailer of high-quality mattresses and divans, with all items handmade in its factory in Inverness. As the only organisation of its kind in the Scottish Highlands, the company provides training and employment to individuals living with visual impairments and other disabilities. 

Highland BlindCraft’s mattresses and divans are fully customisable, with shoppers able to choose from a range of sizes, fabrics, fillings and firmnesses. Available at a range of price points, the mattresses can be ordered online or by phone for delivery across the UK, or in person at the showroom on Inverness’ Ardconnel Street.

To find out more, visit or follow Highland BlindCraft on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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